Thursday 23 May 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'Delegation's visit shows our relationship with the US is still strong - but the times, they are a-changing'

President Michael D.Higgins and his wife Sabina who hosted US speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi and US Congressional delegation at Áras an Uachtaráin. Photo: Mark Condren
President Michael D.Higgins and his wife Sabina who hosted US speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi and US Congressional delegation at Áras an Uachtaráin. Photo: Mark Condren
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

There has been endless discussion and speculation about Ireland's future relationship with Britain since Brexit first loomed ominously on to the horizon. Despite endless coverage of the trivia of Donald Trump's presidency, Ireland's changing relationship with the superpower on the other side of the Atlantic is the subject of less discussion.

A visit to Ireland by some of America's top Democrat politicians, whom your columnist met yesterday as part of their fact-finding mission to this island, is a good opportunity to consider the future of Ireland-US relations.

Let's start with a positive. Among the group of Democrats visiting this week are Congressmen by the names of Boyle, Higgins, Kildee and Neal. The affinity that US politicians who identify as Irish-American have for this country remains very strong, as was clear from the questions and issues the members of the House of Representatives raised yesterday.

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That is an important factor in Ireland's future relationship. But it is not reason for complacency.

When a small country considers its long-term strategic interests with a much bigger country, the first thing it needs to do is understand that country's interests, orientation and direction of travel. That is challenging now because America is changing fast.

Long held-positions on the role of the US in pro-actively shaping the world, shared by both Republicans and Democrats, are shifting.

Bi-partisanship on issues such as foreign trade is breaking down. Ever-deepening political polarisation is, among other things, making the US more introverted. This matters to Ireland in multiple ways.

Since the 1940s, the US has been central to providing Europe the (costly) security that has given the continent an usually long era of peace.

The current US president believes - for good reason - that his country is not getting a good deal on its investment in the defence of Europe.

Whether he does something as dramatic as end the US's commitment to defending Europe if it is attacked is moot, but sooner or later American taxpayers will grow tired of footing our security bill. That day has never looked like it will come sooner, both because the US has better things on which to expend its tax dollars, and because it has bigger fish to fry.

It is often said that the 20th century was America's. It is conventional wisdom now that the 21st century will be Asia's, a continent that accounts for almost half of the world's population and many of its most dynamic economies.

Barack Obama, the last US president, downgraded Europe in the pecking order of American interests - again, for good reason from his country's perspective. His "pivot to Asia" was one of the defining foreign policy shifts of the his presidency.

Polarisation, greater introversion and changing global interests are not the only big changes taking place in the world's most powerful country. Immigration from Latin America and Asia are making the US more ethnically diverse and contributing to shifting its centre of gravity southwards and westwards.

Among other things, this has further reduced the influence of longer established communities in the north-east, including Irish-Americans.

Thankfully, from the perspective of this country, the waning demographic importance of Irish-America does not appear to have lessened the willingness of some US politicians to bat for Ireland.

Nancy Pelosi, who led this week's visiting delegation and who is the speaker of the US House of Representatives, said that she and her like-minded elected representatives would vote against any US-UK trade deal if the outcome of Brexit undermined the Good Friday Agreement.

From any objective calculation of pure national interests, this position does not make sense.

Britain is much more powerful than Ireland in most respects. It is therefore a more useful ally for the US.

If US foreign policy were determined solely by interests, American politicians would not take such a position. But, as Ms Pelosi said, values matter in the stance the US takes on international affairs, not just interests.

This should provide reassurance about the future of the Ireland-US relationship. While American society and politics is changing, the basic values of a nation as well established as the US may be among its most enduring features.

Also reassuring are ever-deepening business ties. The Ireland-US economic relationship has gone from strength to strength in recent decades. It is not as well known as it might be, but the US is Ireland's largest national export market by a distance.

Last year, for instance, Irish goods shipped across the Atlantic brought in three times more in earnings than those shipped across the Irish Sea to Britain.

Better known is the fact that American multinationals have created and sustained tens of thousands of mostly high-paying jobs in Ireland over decades.

It is not an exaggeration to say that without corporate America, the transformation of the Irish economy in the 1990s - from laggard to leader in western Europe - would never have happened.

But it is this great success story that may be the biggest challenge for the future of the Ireland-US relationship.

Donald Trump is different from all his predecessors in living memory in a number of respects. One of those differences is that he believes countries either win or lose when they trade with each other.

Past presidents viewed international trade to be beneficial to both sides. Nor did other presidents come close to taking the sort of aggressively confrontational approach to trade relations with so many partner countries as has the current administration.

If the rest of the US political class does not share the starkness of the president's views and approach, both big parties have become a lot less enthusiastic about economic openness.

Keeping jobs at home and keeping foreign goods out is the message of more and more politicians. There is little sign yet that the new protectionism has done much economic damage, but if the barriers go up and trade partnerships break down that will eventually change.

A more introverted and less engaged America has already changed the way the world works. If the current administration doubles down on that approach and future ones continue it, the future of Ireland-US relations will not be like the recent past.

Irish Independent

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